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Disadvantaged Ontario students likely to take simpler classes

French students work on the test of Philosophy as they take the baccalaureat exam (high school graduation exam) on June 18, 2012 at the Pasteur high school in Strasbourg, eastern France.
The advocacy group People for Education says its analysis of provincial data shows that schools in poorer neighbourhoods are much more likely to have pupils opt for the "applied" Grade 9 classes versus the more complex "academic" versions. Frederick Florin/Getty Images

TORONTO – A new report raises concerns that Ontario high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to take simplified courses in core topics like math, something it links to drastically lower graduation rates.

The advocacy group People for Education says its analysis of provincial data shows that schools in poorer neighbourhoods are much more likely to have pupils opt for the “applied” Grade 9 classes versus the more complex “academic” versions.

Executive Director Annie Kidder says the link between poverty and participation in the basic courses is “shocking,” and suggests it’s possible disadvantaged students are being lumped together based on perceived ability.

She says that practice — known as streaming — was formally ended by the province in 1999 after being criticized for separating minority, immigrant and low-income groups into simpler classes, while others were placed in more advanced courses.

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The report cites research showing that while roughly 85 per cent of students in academic Grade 9 math and English finished school within five years, graduation rates plunged to under 60 per cent for those in the basic course option.

Kidder says the province should look into how students and parents decide with the advice of teachers which of the two approaches to take on courses like English, math and science.

“What we’re seeing is really something that looks pretty close to streaming,” she said.

Kidder said the data flies in the face of the common view that applied math classes — which emphasize practical lessons over abstract problems — are easier to pass.

“They think they’re going to be easier but in fact the data show that they’re more likely to fail,” Kidder said.

She added that those opting to enter the applied Grade 9 classes aren’t likely to switch to the academic version the following year — and face lower odds of later going on to college or university.

“Our worry is there’s a sort of no exit — you make this choice in Grade 8, you picked applied, and it’s very hard to get out of that.”